Time to Pull the Troops From NATO: What Good Is an Alliance Full of Cheap‐​Riders?

This article appeared on Anti​war​.com on June 8, 2020.
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President Donald Trump has ordered the Pentagon to remove 9,500 U.S troops from Germany by September. He also set a firm cap of 25,000, instead of allowing the number to swell to 52,000 as units rotate through or deploy for training.

It is a good start. But why did it take him more than three years to act on his criticism of allied cheap‐​riding on America? And what about the other 25,000 American military personnel in Germany?

Even after the US economy shut down and federal finances cratered, Washington’s foreign policy elite were seeking to add new international duties for Uncle Sam. America and China are teetering on a new cold war, which could turn hot in the Taiwan Strait or elsewhere in the Asia‐​Pacific. Thus, it is said, Washington must bolster its military alliances, security guarantees, and naval deployments.

Members of the Blob, as Washington’s foreign policy establishment has been called, continue to ferociously oppose the slightest withdrawal from the Middle East. America must fix Syria by confronting the Assad government, ISIS, other Islamist radicals, Turkey, Russia, and Iran. The US certainly cannot leave Iraq, irrespective of the wish of Iraqis. And America’s 18‐​year war in Afghanistan, in the heart of Central Asia surrounded by Iran, India, Pakistan, Russia, and China, should be accepted as the start of a beautiful permanent commitment. As the Eagles declared in their famous song Hotel California, Washington can never leave‐​from anywhere.

Finally, the US must increase troop deployments, naval dispositions, and financial assistance not only to NATO members, but alliance wannabe joiners Georgia and Ukraine. Forget the supposedly frontline states of the Baltics and Poland. America must bolster the southern front lest Russia solidify its dominance in the Black Sea and add a base in Syria and another in Libya, analysts warned at a recent forum organized by the Center for European Policy Analysis. Just another step or two and the Mediterranean Sea could become Moscow’s Mare Nostrum, like for the old Roman Empire. Russia then might seek control the Atlantic and perhaps even invade Washington, D.C., following in Britain’s footsteps a couple centuries ago. Or something like that.

The attempt to constantly ensnare America in other nations’ conflicts is foolish, even reckless. First, the US has never been more secure. Its geographic position remains unassailable: large oceans east and west, pacific neighbors north and south. No power threatens to breach that perimeter. America’s navy deploys 11 carrier groups, compared to two carriers by China and one by Russia. The US air force easily secures American airspace, or at least would do so if much of it wasn’t deployed overseas. Only nuclear‐​tipped missiles pose a serious threat, but America’s arsenal vastly outranges that of every country other than Russia, and the latter would be annihilated in return if it struck the US

Terrorism remains an ugly threat, but mostly against Americans overseas. And it is largely self‐​inflicted, the consequence of Washington’s promiscuous foreign intervention: bombing, invading, and occupying other states, such as Iraq; taking sides in bitter conflicts of no concern to the US, such as Lebanon’s civil war; supporting brutal dictatorships as in Egypt, Iran, and Saudi Arabia; and backing nations which occupy and oppress minority populations, most notably Israel. Alas, Washington continues to unnecessarily create additional enemies every day.

Americans should not be surprised if some day angry Yemenis use terrorist methods to strike back against the US, which sold and serviced aircraft used by Saudi Arabia to wreck Yemeni cities, provided munitions dropped by Saudi warplanes on Yemeni weddings, funerals, apartments, and hospitals, refueled planes on their missions to slaughter Yemeni civilians, and offered intelligence to aid Riyadh’s air force in selecting targets. Put bluntly, the Obama and Trump administrations invited retaliation against the American people by aiding true terrorists against the Yemeni people.

Second, Washington has turned a means, alliances, into an end. Instead of using such relationships as a mechanism to improve US security, policymakers routinely sacrifice Americans’ safety and prosperity to continually expand security guarantees, leaving tripwires for war around the globe.

In doing so the Pentagon has turned itself into a welfare agency, underwriting the defense of prosperous, populous states that could protect themselves. Some of these are military nonentities, such as Montenegro and North Macedonia, modern versions of the Duchy of Grand Fenwick, made famous by The Mouse That Roared. Worst of all, the US increasingly allies, sometimes formally, sometimes informally, with countries that bring more military liabilities than assets. Georgia, Ukraine, Taiwan, and Saudi Arabia are the most obvious cases today. All four could drag America into conflicts, the first three with nuclear‐​armed powers.

Third, Washington engages in never‐​ending social engineering that rarely succeeds and would be of little value to Americans even if it did work. Three successive administration have spent almost 18 years trying to turn Afghanistan into a liberal Western‐​style democracy. Worse was blowing up Iraq in expectation that contending ethnic, religious, and political groups would join together singing Kumbaya as they helped America battle Iran. President Barack Obama, a paladin of modern liberalism, ensured Libya’s destruction in the belief that something good would happen. He also imagined that Washington’s ivory tower warriors could fix Syria‐​simultaneously oust Bashar al‐​Assad, vanquish the Islamic State, empower “moderate” insurgents, pacify Turkey, oust Iran and Russia, protect Syrian Kurds, and foster democracy. Trump added the theft of Syrian oil as an American objective. Rarely have international plans been more chimerical, complicated, and costly.

The US is constantly expanding its defense obligations even as its financial health worsens. The federal government currently is borrowing record amounts‐​likely more than $4 trillion this year and $2 trillion next year‐​yet continues to subsidize the defense of populous, prosperous industrialized nation, rebuild failed states, bind together fake countries, hunt down other nations’ enemies, and sacrifice American lives and wealth to play international social engineer. The waste and hubris are bipartisan. Despite marginal differences among liberals and conservatives and Democrats and Republicans, the vast majority of Blob members work assiduously to ensure that the US spends as much as possible, devotes as many resources as possible, deploys as many soldiers as possible, and fights as many wars as possible, all in the name of protecting America despite almost always having the opposite effect.

Washington needs to start scaling back its outlandish ambitions, rediscovering humility and prudence. A good starting point, as the president apparently believes, is Europe.

Foreign policy determines military requirements and force structure. All should change along with circumstances. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization made sense as a temporary shield behind which Europe could revive economically and reconstruct politically. While it doesn’t appear that the Soviet Union ever seriously contemplated launching the Red Army on a march to the Atlantic Ocean, it would have been foolish to take the risk.

However, Dwight D. Eisenhower, the alliance’s supreme commander before becoming president, warned against permanent US deployments lest the continent become dependent on America. And he was right. Europe soon rebuilt and sped past the Soviet Empire, as even East German cities still sported evidence of World War II decades after the bombs stopped falling. Nevertheless, at the height of the Cold War the rising West Europeans continued to pass the bill for their defense to Washington. Their governments routinely promised to spend more and then reneged on their commitments. But the US still paid. The lesson was well‐​learned by Europe.

And so it went after the collapse of the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact. One might think that the disappearance of the enemy would lead to rethinking military alliances. Not at all! As predicted by public choice economists, who have explored the survival incentives of public institutions, NATO aficionados were desperate to preserve the alliance. So they proposed taking on duties such as promoting student exchanges and battling illicit drug use. Eventually they agreed on intervening in “out‐​of‐​area” activities, which increased America’s military role. The Europeans insisted that they couldn’t defend themselves. They certainly couldn’t project significant power beyond their own borders

For instance, in launching an aggressive war against Serbia in 1999 Washington took the lead, since it was estimated to possess about 85 percent of the alliance’s practical firepower. When aiding Libyan rebels in ousting Muammar Khadafy, European militaries ran out of missiles and had to ask the Pentagon for resupply. Russia’s aggressive moves on Ukraine in 2014 led to a cacophony of shocked whining from Europe, causing Congress to vote even more money for the counterproductive multi‐​billion dollar “European Reassurance Initiative,” later renamed the “European Deterrence Initiative,” which told the Europeans that no matter how little they did Washington would always do more.

Yet successive American defense secretaries, secretaries of state, and presidents wondered why European governments ignored pleas that the continent increase its military efforts. Trump has taken credit for a recent modest bump in allied military expenditures, after years of cuts, but the uptick began in 2015, after Moscow’s assault on Ukraine, and peaked in 2017. No one believes that this trend will continue.

The transatlantic alliance currently has 30 members. NATO essentially stands for North America and The Others. The other 29 members, Canada and 28 European countries, can be divided into five categories.

There are big countries that maintain serious militaries. That group is made up of only the United Kingdom and France. Even so the latter doesn’t hit NATO’s two percent of GDP benchmark. There also are big countries that have “other priorities.” Germany continues to creep upward, to 1.38 percent of GDP, but Berlin has constantly pushed forward its date for hitting the two percent level, now set for 2030, three elections from now. With the public opposed to higher outlays‐​and barely a third favoring aid for NATO allies in a war with Russia!-a Martian invasion is more likely than German spending at two percent of GDP. Italy and Spain, also with large economies, don’t even make a pretense of effort and came in at 1.22 and .92 percent, respectively.

Then there are little states that don’t matter, irrespective of what they spend. The newest members are North Macedonia and Montenegro. Plus several others, such as Luxembourg, Albania, Slovenia. There are two governments that hate each other more than any outside threat, Greece and Turkey. Indeed, the former long has broken the two percent barrier, and continued to do so throughout its debilitating Euro crisis, in order to be ready to fight its fellow member, not Russia.

Finally, there are front‐​line states that do more to badger America to defend them than to bolster their own defenses. The Baltics and Poland all barely crawl across the two percent line. In fact, Poland just made it last year. They take great satisfaction in doing so, but if their claims of potential Russian aggression are serious their behavior is inexplicable. Presumably their independence is worth more than just two cents on the dollar. While the Baltics are relatively small and beyond easy NATO defense, they, along with Poland, could focus on territorial defense, thereby making themselves indigestible if Moscow wanted an easy meal.

Thankfully, the latter seems very unlikely. Military action against any of them would risk full‐​scale war while promising few benefits, other than possession of a wrecked and divided land. Moreover, so far Vladimir Putin has shown little interest in grabbing contested territory, taking only Crimea, which was historically part of Russia, did not have a separate identity, contained a majority of Russian speakers, welcomed Moscow’s annexation, and possessed Sevastopol naval base. Otherwise Putin appears to have primarily used “frozen conflicts” with Georgia and Ukraine to keep them out of NATO.

Indeed, the lack of a serious threat probably is the most important reason the Europeans spend so little on the military. What do they need deployable, capable, and ready armed forces for? If a revived Red Army ain’t going to end up on their doorstop, then why waste the money on lots of soldiers and bombs? Especially when Washington officials are constantly reassuring Europeans that America will be there no matter what. European policymakers would be fools to do more, at least more than necessary to quiet American whining, complaining, demanding, crying, and urging Europeans to do more. It’s embarrassing for them to watch representatives of the world’s most powerful nation abase themselves so completely and regularly‐​and ineffectively.

This Kabuki Theater seems likely to keep repeating itself, especially in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. Steve Erlanger of the New York Times reported: “even in the European Union’ pre‐​virus negotiations over the next seven‐​year budget, more contentious than usual because of the gap created by Brexit, military spending was gutted.” Individual members, especially those hit hardest, such as Italy, Spain, and the United Kingdom, will be even less inclined to devote additional resources to the military. What was always a very tough sell has become impossible. Worried Jamie Shea of Chatham House: “The danger now is that the upward trend will go downwards.” Nicole Koenig of the Jacques Delors Centre was blunter: “There will be less defense spending.”

Washington certainly cannot pick up the slack.

Germany is the best place to start withdrawing US troops. First, the Federal Republic hosts America’s biggest European garrison, even though it no longer is the “front line” with Russia. (Italy, United Kingdom, Spain, and Belgium follow with deployments above 1000. Smaller detachments are scattered about the continent.)

Second, Berlin sanctimoniously pretends to be devoted to military revival. Declared Defense Minister Annegret Kramp‐​Karrenbauer: “Germany, for one, remains committed to NATO’s capabilities according to its size and economic strength‐​today, tomorrow and a decade from now.” Third, Germany has the continent’s greatest economic strength and military potential but falls both woefully and dramatically short.

Fourth, the deficiencies are woefully, ostentatiously outrageous. They would be comical if the burden of such shortcomings was not ultimately borne by America. Last year the Atlantic Council’s Jorge Benitez called the German military’s readiness “abysmal.” The Bundestag Military Commissioner, Hans‐​Peter Bartels, concluded that “There is neither enough personnel nor materiel, and often one confronts shortage upon shortage.”

Analysts cited inadequate numbers or availability of aircraft, helicopters, ships, and submarines. The military lacked sufficient recruits, winter clothing, radios, and spare parts. Defense & Security Monitor warned that: “These conditions render German contributions to security missions under an EU- or NATO‐​led mandate less than optimal, as its troop deployments lack proper logistical support and effective firepower capability.”

That Berlin fails to adequately provide for its force is properly its decision, not that of America. As long as Germany does not expect Washington to meet Germany’s defense needs if something goes wrong. Richard Grenell, the US ambassador to Berlin recently returned to America, made the same point in a slightly different fashion: “It is actually offensive to assume that the US taxpayer must continue to pay to have 50,000-plus Americans in Germany, but the Germans get to spend their surplus on domestic programs.”

Grenell would have Berlin spend more. The better approach would be for Washington to return responsibility for Germany’s defense to Germany. Tensions in the relationship would ease dramatically if the US did not constantly browbeat its allies to do what American policymakers believe would be best. Instead, Washington should announce what it plans to do, and let friendly states plan accordingly. Which would make the president’s decision a positive one.

German policymakers finally might be learning an important lesson from Trump. Bundestag member and ruling party spokesman on international affairs Johann David Wadephul said: “It’s yet another wake‐​up call for us Europeans to take our fate into our own hands.”

Of course, kvetching in Washington began immediately. Reported the New York Times: “some former officials said they hoped Mr. Trump would reconsider. Several said that, if enforced, the troop cut would further undermine an Atlantic alliance that Mr. Trump has badly shaken, and was a gift to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, who has been eager to see a diminished American military presence on the continent.”

There is one certainty in dealing with the Blob. Washington must never, ever, do less overseas. It doesn’t matter what or where the problem is. The answer is more.

But circumstances should matter. Despite the mutual efforts of liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans, for completely different reasons, to turn Vladimir Putin into a new bugaboo, Russia poses no serious threat to America. Moscow has regressed to a pre‐​1914 great power, concerned about border security and international respect, determined to be consulted on issues of great moment. But there no longer is an ideological or global struggle. No where is there a conflict over vital issues: neither Crimea’s status nor Syria’s future is of more than peripheral relevance to American security.

Putin’s intervention in Ukraine, though brutal and unwarranted, is fundamentally conservative and defensive, guarding against America’s attempt to extend the Monroe Doctrine to Europe. Imagine if the Soviet Union had supported a coup in Mexico against the elected, pro‐​American president, pressured the new government to sign an exclusive economic agreement with Comecon, the communist trading cartel, and invited Mexico City to join NATO. Few in Washington would have let diplomatic niceties get in the way of speedily “solving” the problem. America has far more reason to improve its relationship with Russia than to maintain a mini‐​Cold War over an issue best left to Europe.

America’s allies possess roughly ten times the GDP of Russia. Italy alone has a larger economy. The continent’s population is more than three times as large. Even today Europe spends more than Moscow on the military. Continental coordination remains inadequate, but necessity for doing better would create a powerful incentive to reform if the US announced a withdrawal schedule. The departing 9,500 should merely be a down payment. The rest in Germany and Europe should be brought home quickly and steadily.

A US departure‐​followed by demobilization of troops made unnecessary by reducing a major military commitment‐​would benefit the American people, reducing military outlays and risks. Nor would this mean “isolationism.” The US would still be involved in Europe economically, socially, culturally, and politically. Moreover, Washington should refashion its military role, perhaps becoming an associate member of a reformed NATO, to facilitate cooperation to advance shared interests. No longer could either side use the alliance to drag the other into foolish, unnecessary conflicts, such as Afghanistan and Libya. Such a process need not happen overnight, but the US should set a certain end point for its security guarantees and military deployments.

The president’s flaws are many and manifest. However, he sometimes gets policy right. As in the case of American defense welfare for Europe. The time for talk should be over. The time for action is now.

Doug Bandow

Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute.